At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead “07”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead “07”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Crime Thriller/Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Aleksa Palladino, Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan, Sarah Livingston, Brían F. O’Byrne, Rosemary Harris, Blaine Horton, Arija Bareikis, Leonardo Cimino, Lee Wilkof, Damon Gupton, Adrian Martinez, Patrick G. Burns, Jordan Gelber/ Runtime: 117 minutes

I would just like to start this review off by saying that if you ever want to see a fan of classic cinema like me smile dear reader then just look at us and say two words. Those words being “Sydney Lumet”. Indeed for those of you who don’t know this is the name of a film helmer who came over from the world of television and who, by the time of his tragic passing in 2011, gave us some of the most iconic examples of movie magic of any film helmer in any generation period. Films like Scorpio “73”, Murder on the Orient Express from 1974, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Whiz, 12 Angry Men “57”, The Verdict “82”, Fail Safe “64”, and of course his masterpiece Just Tell Me What You Want from 1980 (I kid, I kid) to name but a few examples. Jokes aside however, there is no denying that Lumet truly was a masterclass film director and a lot of the films he gave us in his career still do manage to stand the test of time phenomenally well by and large. With that in mind, I guess the reason I choose to bring this up is because of how sad it makes me that this brilliant man’s final film, and slice of cinema I am reviewing for you today, 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead still hasn’t gotten as much attention from the film going community as it ought to despite a solid 15 years having come and gone since it first came out. Indeed I know it’s not as action-packed as some movie lovers amongst you may like and the structure of the narrative might cause some of you to give up on it out of sheer frustration in terms of not being available to follow the story since it doesn’t really go down what you might call a linear road. However even with the aforementioned flaw plus a few minor quibbles aside, there is no denying that the acting from this film’s dynamic cast in front of the camera is first-rate, the work behind the camera is proof of a master craftsman and his team at work, and the story is genuinely riveting. Thus Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead might not be for every single one of you out there, but for those of you who decide to give it a chance I promise you’re about to see something truly special unfold before you.

The plot is as follows: Before I go any further, I would just like to make one thing clear. That being that the way in which I describe this slice of cinema’s narrative in this section will be in a manner that is way more chronological than it is showcased to us as viewers in the film proper. With that being said, our film’s story focuses on a couple of brothers by the name of Andy and Hank Hanson respectively. Andy is the older one who has always been a bit of a ruthless jerk (even by his own admission) and who here lately, despite a really good job as a financial executive and being married to a lovely woman by the name of Gina, has found himself stuck in a precarious position that requires an emergency solution lest he face heavy penalty. Hank on the other hand is the younger brother who, despite being more well-meaning and just overall decent than his older sibling, has time and time again found himself strong armed by the world from his ex-wife constantly nagging him for rent to his older brother Andy seemingly nonstop giving him grief for this or that. Here lately however, Hank’s big dilemma is doing his best to take care of his little girl whom he loves in terms of trying to keep up with both her child support and her school tuition as best as he can. Oh and apparently trying to convince his brother’s wife, with whom he has been having an affair, to leave him and take up house with him if you will. Suffice it to say that although the two men couldn’t be more unlike if they tried, there is one key thing that they have in common at the moment. That being they are both in dire need of some serious cash and fast. It is with that in mind that we see Andy rope in Hank on a scheme he has been cooking up that could alleviate their financial woes. A scheme that involves the seemingly foolproof plot of robbing a jewelry store that the two brothers are intimately familiar with. The only problem being, as we soon find out, is that the reason they are so familiar with this store is because it just so happens to be one that is owned by their own Mom and Dad. Yet when the job (big surprise here) goes horrifically and tragically awry, we see that it isn’t long before familial bonds are severely tested and the lives of all of our characters find themselves being thrown into a serious storm that, with each passing minute, makes it look less and less likely that they will emerge from it even relatively unscathed…..

Now before I go into the positives that can be found in the work done behind the camera, I should point out that the rather unorthodox narrative structure at the heart of this film can be quite the deterrent for some people in regards to giving this a view due to how it jumps around between a trinity of points of view as well as several key points in time. With that being said, while I do understand this film’s jumping around between three distinct perspectives and quite a few periods of time can be hard to follow, it is also not without merit. I say this because by doing this the film is attempting to flesh out both the important cast of characters and the key moments in the narrative to the fullest extent possible. When looking at this element in that regard therefore it is mostly successful. I say mostly because while Andy and Hank’s arcs are strongly fleshed out, the arc of their father Charles is sadly not as strong as it should be for reasons I shan’t spoil here. Yes the performance given by Finney does do a wonderful job of making up for that limitation, but the fact still remains that to some extent it does feel like the film showing his point of view as well as key moments through his eyes, with few exceptions, does seem like an afterthought. Having said that, it should be noted that the positives behind the camera far outweigh any potential negatives that may exist. This starts with the brilliant screenplay penned by Kelly Masterson does a beautiful job of blending together an old school crime saga with a family soap opera where everybody seems to be at least somewhat responsible for the choices that everyone else makes. Indeed make no mistake dear reader: this is the complete and utter meltdown of a family unit on display here. With that said though, this worst-case scenario never once plays out like we are watching an episode of Days of Our Lives, but instead as a genuinely heartbreaking set of circumstances that you, the viewer find yourself being dragged into while wishing that you could do something, anything to make these people (to the varying degrees of unlikeable that they are) whole again. At the heart of it all though is the work done by the, at the time, 83-year-old Lumet in the director’s chair and honestly, he may have made a few misfires before this one, but the fact still remains to be seen that even at close to 90 the man still knew how to make a film that could put its hooks into you on multiple levels. Suffice it to say that Lumet’s directorial touch here is just as elegantly understated yet still quite lively and vibrant of a touch as you will find from a film helmer in the past 5 decades and it is a joy to see him make this final movie that in every way he clearly seemed to be having an absolute blast making from beginning to end.

Of course, for how masterclass the work behind the camera turns out to be, it is thankfully reciprocated by the dynamic talent operating in front of the camera as well. For those of us who have followed Lumet’s filmography since his debut with 12 Angry Men this is hardly a surprise since the man was a talent and a half when it came to working with actors. For those of you who are walking into this unaware of that fact then prepare to be amazed by what the talent he assembled for his final slice of cinema bring to the screen. This starts with the also tragically late yet just as great Phillip Seymour Hoffman who even to this day I am still in shock that he did not get nominated for nearly every single movie that he chose to appear in and that is definitely the case here. Indeed in the role of Andy, Hoffman gives us a guy who is most definitely a slime and a jerk in how he treats the people in his life among other things and who is assuredly worthy of our disdain no question about it. At the same time however, Hoffman does manage to also give this lecherous jerk a few moments where he is somewhat sympathetic such as in a conversation with his dad where he expresses how he never felt like he was ever part of the family and in the ensuing breakdown he has in the car when that conversation doesn’t exactly go well to put it lightly. Suffice it to say that it is a gripping yet also downright heart wrenching performance, but from Hoffman I can’t really say I’m that surprised. We also get a powerhouse turn in this from Ethan Hawke as the younger brother Hank. Indeed I have always enjoyed Hawke’s work as an actor and here is no exception as he gives us a man who is very much the nervous wreck counterpart to his icy and calculating brother. Indeed yes the character of Hank is a tad bit despicable as well due to the affair he is engaged in with his brother’s wife, but as the film goes on we see that while this guy is one who does mean well, he is also someone who can’t ever seem to choose the right path in life and as a result is constantly finding himself belittled by seemingly everyone in his life from his brother to even his witch of an ex-wife. Suffice it to say that Hawke does a great job at playing both the cowardly wimp and the sympathetic guy who just wants to be a good guy in every set of circumstances with the skill that has easily made him one of the more underrated actors of his generation. Now, in addition to the work done by both Hoffman and Hawke respectively, there are a pair of support performances that are definitely worth mentioning. The first of these is by screen icon Albert Finney in the role of the boys’ dear ol’ dad Charles. Indeed, Finney was always a class act whenever he showed up in something. Suffice it to say that here is no exception as he gives us a look at a man who, through his own investigation into the incident that has torn his world to shreds, finds himself forced to also contend with the fallout of failing to be the father that his boys (especially Andy) needed him to be in their lives. Thus I think it is no secret that Finney manages to give a performance in this that will undoubtedly break your heart and then some. The second co-starring performance of note is by the delightful Marisa Tomei in the role of Andy’s wife/ Hank’s mistress Gina. Indeed, gone is the usually bubbly and vibrant personality Tomei is known for usually bringing and in its place is a powerful yet also restrained turn as a quiet and low-key depressed with how life has turned out woman who can’t get the man she loves to even notice her while refusing to go any further with the man who not only notices her, but genuinely loves her and wants to be with her. Suffice it to say it’s an incredible dramatic turn from Tomei and I really hope we get to see her flex this acting muscle of hers more often now that her tenure as Aunt May in the MCU has wrapped up.

All in all I have no doubt in my mind that even with all of the positives that I have mentioned that this slice of cinema has going for it, more than a few of you out there are still on the fence about giving it a chance. Honestly I completely get how you feel since there was a time I was unsure about watching it myself. That and let’s be honest: the way the film’s narrative is structured is definitely something that can really start to annoy even the most patient of viewers out there with how it plays cinematic leapfrog to the point that by the time it switches perspectives and time frames a third time you would not be blamed for looking at the screen like my friend John would and yell “Oh come on!” Plus I won’t lie to you dear reader: there really isn’t a whole lot in the way of action beats in this film so those of you wanting that in your movies will undoubtedly be disappointed there too. With that in mind dear reader, if you are still here and you are in the mood for a film about that uses the aftermath of a robbery gone horribly awry to showcase the heartbreaking ways that a group of people can seriously mess up both their own lives and the lives of others then honestly this is the film for you. Sure it might not have a lot in the way of action, but the performances it contains are magnificent. Sure it’s narrative structure may require a bottle of Tylenol to handle, but if you think about it at least it does give us the chance to see this situation unfold in a manner, however dizzying, that fleshes out its quartet of important characters to a varying extent. Above all though Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is also wonderful proof that, even at the end of a glorious career that may have seen more valleys than hills at the time, an iconic director can still come back to the plate and knock one out of the park with the right material. Make of that therefore what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead “07” a solid 4 out of 5.